Friday, March 30, 2007

Suffer The Children

from Jacqueline

About a ten minute walk from my hotel close to London’s Russell Square, is one of the capital’s most interesting museums – to my mind, anyway. The Foundling Museum is small – you can whip around it in half an hour – but the history continued within this building in Brunswick Square, on the site of Britain’s first foundling hospital, is poignant and, I think, timely

In an extraordinary act of moral courage and vision – at a time hallmarked by debauchery and excess – a seafaring man, and something of an entrepreneur, Thomas Coram, saw the need for such an institution, and did something about it. Returning from a lengthy sojourn in the Colonies with his Bostonian wife in 1702, he was rather less than wealthy due to a few problematic business deals, and had little social clout, given his position and the times. However, Coram became appalled at the numbers of young children he saw, “exposed, sometimes alive, sometimes dead, and sometimes dying,” at the roadside. A child-lover and known for his activism in America (he had set up a colony for destitute soldiers in Massachusetts and had also campaigned for Mohican land rights), he could not get those images of suffering out of his head. Without delving deeply into the history of his quest in this post, suffice it to say it took him seventeen years to render his vision of a safe haven for foundlings a reality. Stubbornness helped: In New England he had been described as, “a man of that obstinate, persevering temper, as never to desist from his first enterprise, whatever obstacles lie in his way.”

It’s interesting, now, to think that when The Foundlings Hospital was first built. on 56 acres of pasture land on what is now just west of the Gray’s Inn Road, and barely a five-minute walk from the very place where a terrorist’s bomb went off on July 7, 2005, it was a very rural area, described in Jane Austen’s “Emma” as being, “so very airy.” It must have been a breath of fresh air if you were one of the 27,000 of London’s abandoned children who were taken in by hospital during its years of service.

Eventually, the hospital was relocated to Hertfordshire in 1926, and the original building demolished, fine architectural example though it was. And, as we know, institutions became an unpopular solution to the housing of humanity’s problems, and through the decades it has been considered more effective if the dispossessed and less than fortunate are absorbed into the community where they will no doubt be welcomed as part of society. This would be that same society who turned their backs a couple of hundred years earlier.

So, it was interesting to go to this place just one day after new findings revealed that child poverty in Britain has increased for the first time in six years. And before we get smug, I think we might not have a sterling record in the USA, either. Think “Katrina.” The British charity, Barnardos, called the situation, "a moral disgrace.” (Barnardos, by the way, grew out of the Dr. Barnardo’s Children’s Homes, which were orphanages founded in the nineteenth century by – you guessed it – Dr. Barnardo).

But with Britain’s generous social services policies, which include national healthcare, housing, and a myriad of possible allowances, their circumstances must seem palatial to the children of West Africa, who are sent to the cocoa farms, because the world-wide love of chocolate means that there can never be enough cocoa picked, and cheaply. Seems that the 2001 international outcry at the use and abuse of children on the cocoa farms, and the stern warnings from the US Congress that led to the signing of the “Cocoa Protocol” by the chocolate industry, has amounted to little after an initial flurry of activity. The deadlines to meet certain goals came and went and the industry then went on its sweet way, although there is one “model farm” where a mud hut-like schoolroom has been built for the children who come to farm. I’ll think of that next time I get a chocolate craving. Sadly, there are no little kisses for those children.

Also interesting, was the fact that my little foray across the square came just two days after an open letter was sent from a collective of some of Europe’s most esteemed writers, about the situation in Darfur, where, as it happens, thousands of children are dying. In the letter, the writers (Umberto Eco, Dario Fo, Günter Grass, Jürgen Habermas, Václav Havel, Seamus Heaney, Bernard Henri-Levy, Harold Pinter, Franca Rame and Tom Stoppard) said, “How dare we Europeans celebrate this weekend while on a continent some few miles south of us the most defenseless, dispossessed and weak are murdered in Sudan? Has the European Union - born of atrocity to unite against further atrocity - no word to utter, no principle to act on, no action to take, in order to prevent these massacres in Darfur? Is the cowardliness over Srebrenica to be repeated? If so, what do we celebrate? The thin skin of our political join? The futile posturings of our political class? The impotent nullities of our bureaucracies?”

I wonder what someone like Thomas Coram would have said, in these abundant times (for many of us) where our excess is effectively killing our planet , about the fact that children around the world are still among the dispossessed, and are suffering.

In the entrance to the room that houses the history of The Foundling Hospital, there’s an introduction which includes the following: “Every child and every generation of children, throughout history and across the globe, represents the future ... they are our individual and collective responsibilities. And none more so than the vulnerable, the abandoned, the sick, the hungry, and the unloved.” With all the terrible things that are happening to the children in this world, whether it is abandonment in the home (anywhere), the guns in Iraq, lack of education or opportunity (anywhere), being drugged and told to fight in Africa ... oh, doesn’t that list go on?, I keep thinking about a message I saw on a t-shirt once: Children should be seen, heard and believed.

After Coram’s original Foundling Hospital was demolished, the land became Coram's Fields, and is now a playground for children. No adult may enter unless accompanied by a child.

To send this post to a friend, please click on the envelope icon below. To take action on behalf of a child, if you Google “children’s charities” or “helping children” it ‘s interesting what comes up.


  1. Great post, Our J. Here is a link to a recent news article from the BBC about a recent scientific study that estimates 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur. Two and a half million have been displaced. George Clooney's efforts aside, no one seems to be able to stop this madness.

  2. I heard something on NPR the other day about a new high-tech version of a "foundling wheel" being installed in a Roman Hospital--a heated drawer/crib in which a baby can be deposited anonymously, set into the hospital's outer wall. The staff is immediately alerted by an alarm, but the person who's brought the baby can leave before being seen.

    The piece described the first foundling wheels, rotating platforms likewise set into the walls of hospitals and convents starting in 1138. They were the brainchild of Pope Innocent III, who was sickened by the number of infants dragged up from the Tiber in fishing nets, after their mothers had thrown them off bridges.

    Italians call the new heated version a "Culle per la Vita," or Cradle for Life. In Germany, they're known as "Babyfensters" (Baby Windows) or "Babyklappes," (Baby Flaps). The Japanese call them Baby Postboxes. In Germany, the babies are kept in the hospital for eight weeks, during which time their mothers can reclaim them.

  3. Important and heartfelt post.

    Re: Cornelia's comment.

    You can listen to NPR's fascinating "foundling wheel" story at

    If that link doesn't work for you, simply go to, then type "foundling wheel" into its search engine.

    Brief excerpt:

    Today's version [of the foundling wheel], located at a hospital in one of Rome's poorest districts, resembles a large ATM.

    It features a heated crib behind a glass hatch. Electronic sensors alert doctors when a baby is dropped off.

    Many of the abandoned children are the offspring of illegal immigrants who are too afraid to seek health care and ignorant of their rights.

    Hoping to create a safe environment for a painful decision, the Italian minister of family affairs has proposed installing a "baby box" in every maternity ward in the country.

  4. Hello team! Given the time difference, I'll probably only be able to check in once to respond to comments on this post, however, interestingly enough, Thomas Coram, all those years ago, traveled to Rome to see what had been done in terms of providing for foundlings there, and based the Foundlings Hospital in London upon the work he had observed. The mothers who left babies and children at the Foundlings Hospital were asked to leave an item, something they owned to give the child from its mother as it grew older. In their advertising now, the museum uses the shell from a hazlenut, which was all one woman could leave for her child to remember her by.

    Patty, Cornelia and Paul, thank you for your additions to this post. The idea of having to leave your child to an uncertain future just breaks your heart - especially when it's the best future you can possibly offer

  5. Thanks, Our J, for another deep and heartfelt post. You have a big heart for those around you - even if they don't know you and live half way around the world. And you are also the vision of truth with your flaming sword. I'm proud to know you and your causes.

    Why is it always the children who are the first to suffer in this world. Yeah, we complain about the modern child that we encounter; their lack of responsibility, manners, ethics, what have you - and the fact that a lot of the visible ones are the most sheltered things on the planet regarding the real world. While so many more slip through the cracks. Just today, while Bob and I were driving around on errands, we were talking about a religious friend who had waxed lyrical a few years back about his family sponsoring a child in Africa. While I applaud that - I had one of my own in Sri Lanka through the 80s - my mind shifted to the many locally who need clothes, food, shelter, safety, literacy, hope... This person was a Christian Counsellor and was smug with it, but a lot of the children he helped were the offspring of friends - not the really damaged ones who needed much more.

    I suppose the point of this ramble is, that we should treat and care for all children equally. Love them and nurture them all, all over the world. It would be a nicer place to live in if it were. I've been daily sickened with news from the civil war in Iraq between the Sunnis and Shia: militia who toss families out of home, and kill endless innocents. Those people don't deserve to have their dna in the gene pool any longer. Same with the murderers in Dafur, and the endless parade of child molestors and abusers around the world.

    BOb and I chose not to have children. For medical reasons as well as ethical. There are too many unwanted children in the world today. And as for those celebrities who go to other countries and find adoptees to pamper beyond their wildest dreams - grow up and look around your own back yard.

    Okay, I need food. I'm starting to rant too much. :-D Don't want to offend anyone.
    So, cheers for now. Off to find pizza,


  6. This has me thinking of the lyrics in a Tippett chorus piece called "A Child of Our Time". From
    "The world turns on its dark side. It is winter" to a passage near the end, "The moving waters renew the Earth. It is spring".

    Waiting for Spring.

  7. Wow...this is the second blog post I've read today about kids... So I'll repeat here what I've said elsewhere:

    If you'd like to know how you may be able to help abused and neglected kids in your own area, check and see if your state has a volunteer Guardian ad Litem (GAL) program. GALs represent the interest of the child in court, an interest which is sometimes overlooked in Child Protective Services cases where everyone else--parents, the CPS--etc...already has an advocate to speak for them.
    Some states use court personnel, some use appointed attorneys, but a sizable number rely on citizen volunteers. I work with the GAL program in my county, and they are an amazing group of people.
    You may not be able to do much about Darfur, but there are likely some children in your hometown who need a voice.

  8. Thank you, Jackie.

    Tom, T.O.